No good deed goes unpunished

Harbor of Spies: A Novel of Historic Havana
By Robin Lloyd, Lyons Press 2018, 320 pp., $24.95

Reviewed by Bob Muggleston
For Points East

The year is 1863. The American Civil War is in full swing, and a young American ship captain named Everett Townsend pulls a half-drowned man out of a Cuban harbor and later hides the man from authorities. No good deed goes unpunished, as the saying goes, and so this proves true in “Harbor of Spies,” when Townsend is apprehended for saving the man (a prison escapee) and told that the only way he can avoid jail time is to run supplies for the Confederate South through Northern blockades. For Townsend, who’d originally intended to fight for the north as a Union officer, but couldn’t due to tragic circumstances, the choice is agonizing.

Such are the decisions that make for intrigue in a novel, and “Harbor of Spies” has them in spades. Townsend’s good at being bad. He’s too good, really, and these abilities open the doors to a side of Cuba he’d rather not see, thanks to the mentorship of a rich and unscrupulous Spanish merchant. This while Townsend juggles quite a few balls: his role as a double agent, his informal investigation into the death of an English diplomat, his single-minded pursuit of a paramour, and his slow-motion discovery – whether he likes it or not – of who he really is.

For historical fiction buffs this is a solid book that often had me stopping to think about the widespread prevalence of slavery at one time throughout the Caribbean, the Americas and Europe. Call it a disturbing global perspective. For way too long, really, it was the oil upon which much of the world’s machinery ran, and it’s easy to forget sometimes that slavery didn’t exist in a vacuum: It was big business, and merchants existed at every level where money changed hands. In the capacity of eye-opening history lesson “Harbor of Spies” works extremely well, with a level of detail that’s sure to make some squirm, and those of us who sail will find that Lloyd’s sailing scenes ring true.

As a novel of intrigue and romance the book is perhaps less successful, but maybe only because the historical framework is built so well, with such great context. I read “Harbor of Spies” this winter in front of a woodstove, and often found myself stopping to stare at the fire and contemplate the world as it was in 1863, which was a romantic one for some, but must have been the embodiment of life in those flames for others.

Bob Muggleston is Points East’s editor.

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